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Education for dummies

India’s primary education faces problems on two fronts: one, ensuring 100 per cent enrolment; two, tackling drop-outs, closing gender gaps and improving learning quality.

india Updated: Sep 25, 2008 22:04 IST
NK Singh

While we worry — or explain away worries about the meltdown in the American financial system affecting India — there is another problem that needs to be seriously and quickly tackled: primary education.

India’s primary education faces problems on two fronts: one, ensuring 100 per cent enrolment; two, tackling drop-outs, closing gender gaps and improving learning quality. Teacher training needs an imaginative approach, as does the inculcation of skills to improve vocational education to meet emerging demands and make pupils not only educated but employable.

Higher education has a different set of problems. First, a ratcheting of the gross enrolment ratio from less than 8 per cent to, say, 15 per cent needs, according to Planning Commission estimates, 1,500 new universities as well as increasing the number of IITs, IIMs and other speciality courses. The recommendations of the National Knowledge Commission (NKC) have no doubt helped in obtaining large resource allocations in the Eleventh Five Year Plan. This is far higher than in any earlier period. Unfortunately, little headway has been made on other fronts because many credible recommendations of the NKC continue to gather dust in the Human Resource Development (HRD) Ministry.

There is, in fact, a sense of unease and disappointment. So what could be a crucial advantage for India remains mired in the bureaucratic politics of the HRD Ministry and a mindset that still believes in excessive regulation and micro-managing our educational system.

Three key areas deserve priority attention. One, the recommendation contained in the NKC’s 2007 report suggesting a new regulatory framework to replace the current practices and procedures of the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) and the University Grants Commission (UGC). It has proposed an Autonomous Standing Committee for Management Education to be set up under an independent regulatory authority for higher education. The main role of this committee would be to exercise due diligence in granting licences and separate the approval, regulation and accreditation processes. This will be done through a new Independent Regulatory Authority for Higher Education (IRAHE), which would maintain an arm’s length relationship with the government. The HRD Ministry, however, has constituted yet another committee to ‘examine this question’. In other words, to shelf the recommendations.

Second, proposals for innovative financing of educational institutions. These enable institutions to at least meet 20 per cent of their cost from today’s abysmal 10 per cent — which boils down to the question of determining fees. Archaic regulations inhibit the garnering of philanthropic contributions. Universities securing such resources have been penalised through matching deductions in grants-in-aid by the UGC. This issue of fees is being considered by another commission (the Ranganath Mishra Committee) set up by the HRD Ministry.

Third, the issue of faculty retention, attraction and quality improvement cannot be devoid of competitive market economics. This needs a review of the faculty’s compensation package that is predicated on an appropriate fee structure. But here again, progress remains stalled.

The issue of autonomy of educational institutions has received scant attention. Institutions like the IIMs and the IITs
that receive grants continue to be micro-managed. Two key legislations — the Right to Education Bill and the Foreign Universities Bill — have yet to be introduced in Parliament.

Nobody doubts the sincerity of the Prime Minister in significantly enhancing outlays for the education sector. However, the enabling regulatory framework and environment will continue to stymie desired outcomes. Merely setting up more committees and commissions is a classic device to postpone and buy time. But time is running out. And India really needs to reap the advantages of a demographic differential.

(NK Singh is a Rajya Sabha MP and former member, Planning Commission)